Swarms are the natural way bee colonies reproduce. Sensing the nectar and pollen bounties of spring, the increased crowding in the hive as the first rounds of brood hatch, and the shrinking brood area as brood and nectar vie for cell space, swarm preparations begin.
The workers decide to construct one to many queen cells. These elongated, peanut shaped structures hang off the face or bottom edge of the frames, and the larvae inside are lavishly fed royal jelly until they cap (on Day 7/8 post laying). Once the queen cells start to cap over, their queen larvae spinning their cocoons and metamorphosing into queen bees, the old queen leaves the hive with roughly half of the hive population (all ages), and as much honey as they can carry in their guts.
The resulting swarm erupts from the hive, then settles onto a perch nearby. They can remain there for up to several days, while the older scout bees fly out to find suitable homes. They are looking for:
- a roughly 40 litre cavity
- preferably 15′ or so off the ground
- preferably with a 15 cm, east facing opening
- preferably containing old brood comb
But alas few swarm colonies will survive the next winter, as they will be overcome by mites even if they can build up a colony that is large enough and well provisioned enough to endure the cold season.
Swarms are extremely docile. The bees’ tummies are stuffed with honey and so they cannot easily sting. They are collected by simply shaking them into a suitable container, then are taken to a hive and dumped inside. You can ensure a swarm stays in the hive you choose by giving them a frame of brood. Honey bees are very, very reluctant to abandon brood. Although recent research indicates they are most “invested” in capped brood, I like to give them a frame of brood in all stages if I can. Just covering all the bases…
Because they are now without stores, a swarm colony is fed nectar and protein patties until it is putting up its own honey. This ensures healthy brood and new bees right from the start.
Swarms may be leaving hives crashing from disease, stress or pests. So watch any caught swarm carefully as it may need treatment. Quarantine them in a remote yard if you can.
Swarm control generally consists of:
- making sure there is always space for the queen to lay (open brood nest) by adding frames of empty drawn comb or waxed foundation to the brood area
- adding another deep super once the existing super(s) are 80% drawn and full
- maintaining young queens in the hive (under 2 years of age)
- maintaining good ventilation in the hive (rising CO2 levels from crowding are a spur to swarming)
- splitting if the queen suddenly reduces her rate of lay (in preparation to swarm) or queen cells appear
- **note that when a nectar flow is imminent, you must put on honey supers, more than you think the bees will need. Failing to do so forces house bees to store the incoming nectar anywhere they can, including the broodnest. If the broodnest becomes “nectar bound”, that will trigger swarming. So super for honey early and often, ensuring that one empty honey super is over the broodnest at all times during a nectar flow!!!
In the spring, the swarm impulse is mercilessly strong. So inspecting carefully every 7-10 days is essential or you risk a swarm going off.
NOTE: a queen cell can be started the minute you close up the hive after an inspection and in theory, the swarm can go off within 7 days, ie. as soon as the queen cells is capped and before you do your next inspection!!!! If you want to prevent swarms, inspect often.
Signs a hive has swarmed are:
- no queen in the hive!
- no eggs (or young open brood) in the hive
- queen cups with eggs in them or queen cells in the hive
- bees seem skittish and agitated
- you may hear “the queenless roar”
- lots of empty cells, polished and waiting for the next queen to start laying
When a swarm leaves, your hive population is halved, and your colony will be broodless from the time the old queen stops laying until the new queen comes into lay. That can be 3 to 4 weeks! More if the colony decides to let the new queen swarm off as well, which it will do if it hatches multiple fine queens and has a healthy population. If swarming happens in the lead up to the nectar flow, your hive will be seriously reduced in size, low on mature foragers, and will not be able to put up good amounts of honey.
So for honey producers, swarm control is the main focus of spring management!
There are many methods of splitting as swarm control. Which you use depends on your beekeeping goals.
Making Nucs (nucleus colonies)
A nuc generally consists of:
- two frames of stores (honey and bee bread)
- three frames of brood, including eggs and capped brood
- a fertile, laying queen under 2 years of age
There are special boxes manufactured for this purpose (they work really well as swarm gathering boxes too!), boxes imaginatively named “nucleus (nuc) boxes”:
Nucs can help with swarm control (taking excess population out of the main hive, along with the old queen or queen cells), can serve as nurseries for new queens, can serve as a place to hold the old queen while a hive requeens itself, and is generally a reservoir offering a small colony for sale or for adding to a queenless colony in your own apiary.
Worker bees and brood can also be put into a nuc box, without the queen, and layered via the newspaper method onto a hive needing a boost.
It is always handy to have a few empty nuc boxes on hand. You never know when you will need one for a swarm call!
Making queens and new colonies is my favourite part of beekeeping. Left to myself I would run all nucs and devote all my time to queen and colony production. There are many methods for raising queens. For our small apiary the easiest and best method is to take the old queen out into a nuc with a small support staff and feed them both syrup and protein supplement. They will cook along nicely with HRH safe and sound while the main colony goes into panic mode and raises a new crop of queen cells.
The main colony has more bees and resources to pour into those queen cells, and since queen quality is largely a function of queen larval nutrition, the main colony can raise very well fed queens. As extra insurance I also feed the main colony while they are raising the new queen cells.
I find that queens that come out of this method are big, fat and sassy…good producers.
You can go into the hive once the queen cells are a couple of days from emergence and, if there are 5 or more, either cull or harvest the smallest ones. I would leave at least three of the largest to give the bees some choice in who they choose to emerge and survive. The bees will back the queen they feel is best, and they are seldom wrong.
Harvested mature queen cells can be put into waiting, queenless nucs to emerge and mate.
There are all kinds of approaches to queen rearing, but if you want a batch of queens, try this method for the small apiary: